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Volunteering... ‘it is a lot of fun’

TVOC offers two senior volunteer opportunities -- Foster Grandparents and Caring Companions

By Jim Palmer

Tri-Valley Opportunity Council, Inc., (TVOC) a non-profit community action agency serving eastern North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota, offers two programs that focus around seniors and volunteers -- the Foster Grandparent Program and the Caring Companion Program. Both programs provide volunteer opportunities for seniors and disabled persons to help others in their community -- one is design to help students in their community and the other is meant to help their senior neighbors who may be experiencing isolation or loneliness.

Foster Grandparents

“The Foster Grandparent Program is about finding senior volunteers who have the passion and love for kids,” said Marley Melbye, Senior Programs Director at TVOC. “We find volunteers 55 and older who want to spend time in the school and are willing to assist kids -- people who have an interest in the generation to come.”

Through the program, volunteers are asked to volunteer between 10-15 hours a week. This allows the volunteers enough time to build solid relationships with the students and make it more of an impactful experience for all those involved, said Melbye.

A group photo of the foster grandparents, taken prior to the pandemic. Contributed photo

“Our volunteer work in the classroom under the supervision and guidance of the teacher, the hope is that our volunteers working and learning side by side with the students”. Some teachers will assign volunteers with one student. Some will work in small groups or pairs. The kids they are working with are usually the students that would benefit with extra help and assistance or students that can handle being challenged more. The volunteers meet the students where they are at and help support them in being successful in the classroom.”

Grandpa Mike started as a Foster Grandparent in the Dilworth, Minn., school district about two years ago. He got one “normal year” under his belt and then a new experience this past year due to the pandemic.

“On my first day the teacher asked me to introduce myself. After I said my name one little girl in kindergarten said, ‘Grandpa Mike, how old are you?’ I said, ‘how old do you think I am?’ She said, ‘20... no, 22!’’

Fun moments like that are what hooked Grandpa Mike on the program.

“It is a lot of fun,” he said. “The interaction with the kids is fantastic and the interaction with the teachers and other staff is terrific, too.”

Melbye noted that most of the Foster Grandparents have never been involved in teaching or academics in any capacity. Like most foster grandparents, Mike had no experience in the classroom before trying it out. He was a potato farmer and shipper who became a truck dispatcher toward the end of his career. He decided the Foster Grandparent Program might be a good fit for him as a way to get out of the home and help others.

“It is fun to see them bring their professions and bring them to the school,” she said. “Most of them do not have experience with classroom management or teaching a student reading or math, so for a while they are learning right beside the student. That’s one beautiful part of this.”

“I’m home alone most of the time,” he said. “I had a stroke so my left side doesn’t work and 30 percent of my brain is gone... but I think that wasn’t much of a problem because I’m half Irish and half Norwegian so I’m used to operating a little short in the brain department. It looked like a fun program and I have always enjoyed joking around with little students. I’m kinda the crazy uncle of the family.”

Grandpa Mike is a prime example of someone bringing his talents/experiences into the classroom and connecting with students. One way he has done that is through his enjoyment of drawing.

“There was a kid who was in trouble for fighting, so he was moved into the separate room. I was asked to sit with him. We talked about him being teased and fighting. I noticed he had a tablet with some drawings on it. It was anime stuff and I could tell he was a pretty good artist. I showed him how to draw a basic head, according to my YouTube education. He liked that. Then I had to go to another class. When I came back he had drawn another head, but he put glasses on it and said it was a picture of me. That was pretty rewarding.”

Grandpa Mike took that image to the next level, which further strengthened his connection with the student.

“I know how to make animation from drawings so I took his drawing and turned it into an animation,’ said Grandpa Mike. “He really thought that was cool to see the lips moving on his drawing.”

While working with an eighth grade girl who needs some assistance, he noticed she also had a passion for drawing.

“So we started a drawing challenge. We would take something like a pop can and we would both have to draw it. Then we would have the teacher say who had the best drawing. I did several of these with her and never won once... no matter how much I tried to bribe the teacher,” he smiled.

Over the last two years, Mike has made lots of great connections. He said his role is constantly changing depending on the class and the circumstances.

Grandma Betty served for 20 years in the same classroom in the Fertile-Beltrami School. This photo was taken at her 90th birthday party, which the school threw for her. She was one of the longest standing foster grandparents in the program. Contributed photo

“One class there was a little boy from Somalia who had just emigrated to the United States a half year before or so. He was really doing well speaking but numbers were escaping him. I worked with him on math,” he said. “Another teacher just wanted me to read with the kids, so I did that.”

And sometimes special moments just happen out of the blue.

The impact of Foster Grandparents is not only felt by students. It is also felt by the teachers.

“We are in constant contact with the teachers and we recognize the foster grandparents each year. When we recognize, the teachers send us write ups about the volunteers and these write ups are unbelievable and show how much they appreciate having them in the classrooms,” said Melbye.

And when that foster grandparent is no longer in the classroom, it is noticeable...

“One of our longest standing foster grandparents passed away recently,” said Alicia Berhow, Senior Programs Manager. “She had been in the same classroom with the same teacher for 20 years. Since she is gone, that teacher doesn’t know what to do with herself anymore. She was such a vital part of the classroom. Once that connection is made it is pretty amazing to see.”

Students and teachers definitely benefit from the program, but there is a third party that benefits greatly from this program... the foster grandparents.

“The rewards are far more than the effort,” said Grandpa Mike. “It is very satisfying.”

Although it is a volunteer program, foster grandparents do receive mileage reimbursement, a free school lunch and a non-taxable stipend of $3 per hour while working at the school.

“A lot of our volunteers call it ‘bonus money,’” said Kristal Abrahamson, Senior Programs Coordinator.

Foster grandparents are also provided with monthly inservice/training opportunities. These trainings are designed to enhance their classroom experience and also help with personal life. Some of the trainings include topics like technology, identity theft, ordering online.

The pandemic has altered the Foster Grandparents program over the last year or so. It has also made the need for foster grandparents all the more important. This year has been different due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so the program has had to adapt quickly. “Its good to change and grow and try new things,” said Melbye. “That is one thing this year has allowed us to do.

“Schools are finding that students are further behind in reading and math just because they have done what they can with distance learning, but that is not how kids have been trained to learn. The importance of the Foster Grandparents Program will be much more important in the days ahead as kids will be further behind. Hopefully we can find volunteers so we can bridge that gap,” said Berhow.

Tri-Valley Opportunity Council is currently looking for foster grandparents in the counties of Becker, Clay Kittson, Lake of the Woods, Mahnomen, Marshall, Norman, Pennington, Polk, Red Lake and Roseau in Minnesota. It also recently launched a new Foster Grandparent Program in eastern North Dakota. This will include the counties of Barns, Benson, Cass, Cavalier, Grand Forks, Griggs, Pierce, Ramsey, Richland, Sargent, Stutsman, Trail and Walsh. Serving as the manager of the Foster Grandparent Program in North Dakota is Penny Millspaugh.

“Right now, my role has been connecting with school and getting the word out that Tri-Valley is here,” said Millspaugh. “I will be letting people know what we can do together to support our schools and our communities through this program. I can’t wait for the possibilities.”

To learn more about the program, call 1-800-584-7020 or 1-218-281-5832 and ask for the Foster Grandparent Program, or email

Caring Companions

The Caring Companion Program is all about recruiting senior volunteers to go into the homes of those seniors who have become isolated. Volunteers can serve one client or as many as they like. And clients can determine how often they would like to connect with that volunteer. Volunteers receive a mileage reimbursement during their time with the volunteer. The program is currently active in Becker, Clay Kittson, Lake of the Woods, Mahnomen, Marshall, Norman, Pennington, Polk, Red Lake and Roseau counties in Minnesota.

“Our companions come in, have a cup of coffee, take them to the movies, to the store, anywhere they want to go to help them alleviate isolation and loneliness. That can sometimes result in premature nursing home placement,” said Melbye. “Our main goal is to bring a friend to someone in need.”

The program typically involves mostly in-person visits, but that all changed last March.

Two foster grandparents from Fosston skipped down the hall together. Contributed photo

“This year has been a challenge because the program is designed to send senior volunteers who are high risk into the homes of seniors who are also high risk,” said Melbye. “So instead of going to their homes, we encouraged volunteers to make phone calls as often as they could to check in and to chit chat to help make sure we all feel connected to something. The goal was to reach a person’s heart through the phone.”

The Caring Companion Program is currently looking for both volunteers and clients.

“In some areas we will have volunteers but no clients and in other areas we have clients but no volunteers,” said Melbye. “It can be a challenge to find that perfect balance between the volunteers and the client. And we then we take it a step further to try to make sure the volunteer and the client have something in common. We have our clients fill out a care plan. We want to know what they want out of the program. Do they want to go to a community event, the pool or just visit for coffee now and then. Then we figure out who is the perfect fit for them.”

And when that perfect match is made...

“Some of the matches that we make become lifelong friends,” said Abrahamson. “It is fantastic when that happens.”

And while most of these connections start out with a cup of coffee and a conversation, they don’t always stick to that schedule.

“We have our volunteers fill out time sheets and they mark down what they are doing with the client and it is so fun to read those sheets,” said Melbye. “There is a pair that like to go fishing together. We have a couple who go to a music festival together. We have a blind client who likes to go shopping and she and the volunteer go shopping and talk about textures, talk about colors and it is something that she doesn’t have an opportunity to do.”

“And a few more details on the client and volunteer who go fishing,” said Berhow. “That client was completely homebound except for medical appointments. The volunteer joined the program specifically for this client. They immediately clicked. Now they go fishing and they are going to the restaurant together. He is having so many more interactions outside the home. And the man’s social worker reached out and said he was a whole new person. Sometimes I think the volunteers underestimate what those connections can do.”

How does a person get connected with the Caring Companion Program?

“Sometimes the call comes from the client themself and sometimes it is the family member, but often times it is a social worker or someone else who recognizes that assistance is needed. They see that isolation is happening and they can see how the volunteers would benefit them,” said Berhow.

To learn more or to sign up as a volunteer or a client, call 1-800-584-7020 or 1-218-281-5832 and ask for the Caring Companion Program, or email

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